All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Putting Security Back on Track

Becky Akers is a historian and freelance writer in New York City .

You might think the threats confronting American aviation are unique and unprecedented, given the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) unique and unprecedented regulations. Passengers must shed their shoes and they may carry aboard only three-ounce containers of liquids and gels, but “larger containers that are half-full or toothpaste tubes rolled up are not allowed.” Screeners frisk arthritic grandmothers in wheelchairs as though they’re hiding bombs instead of bunions. What sort of exceptional danger do we face if this is what it takes to counteract it?

But a wise man observed some 2,800 years ago that there’s “no new thing under the sun.” In fact, terrors similar to those plaguing the airlines once scourged another mode of transit. Yet it responded very differently. That explains its success in restoring safety—and it never once forced passengers to pad about barefoot.

Just as travel by air was born early in the twentieth century, so railroads began appearing early in the nineteenth. By the middle of their respective centuries, each was wildly popular for moving people and freight over distances previously unimaginable. Both also attracted criminal attention.

Although the motivations were different—robbers preyed on trains for personal profit, while political profit inspired the 9/11 catastrophe—the results were the same: dead customers and crew as well as terrified survivors. One witness described an attack by the famed “Hole in the Wall Gang”: “Following close behind the [robbers'] shooting came a terrific explosion, and one of the [train's] doors was completely wrecked and most of the car windows broken. The bandits then threatened to blow up the whole car if we didn’t get out. . . [W]e jumped down, and were immediately lined up and searched for weapons. They said it would not do us no good to make trouble, . . . that they had powder enough to blow the whole train off the track.”

Trains carried gold bullion, safes stuffed with paper money, and bejeweled passengers with hefty wallets. Such riches lured predators like Frank and Jesse James, the Reno Brothers, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These thugs were often military veterans skilled at killing rather than the affable jokers of Hollywood legend. They destroyed track to derail trains and strand those aboard; punched, pistol-whipped, kicked, and shot passengers; kidnapped them and railroad employees; and plundered and murdered until their reputations were as fearsome as al Qaeda’s. Indeed, the 9/11 hijackers could have partly borrowed their strategy from them because they often boarded with everyone else, waited for the train to get underway, and then left their seats to plunder and kill.

The railroads, like the airlines, might have turned to government for protection; they certainly never hesitated to demand the State’s help in acquiring land, financing their operations, or enforcing a cartel to squash competitors. But aside from the rewards some states posted and the lawmen they paid for capturing criminals “dead or alive,” the railroads assumed most of this responsibility themselves. That left them free to protect their passengers and equipment in ways prohibited to the airlines.

First, rather than relying on bureaucrats and hacks for security, the railroads hired the best companies available. Their agents concentrated on pursuing—literally—the culprits. They would have laughed at the idea that they should harass, search, and delay passengers at depots while waiting for the outlaws to come to them.

Catching those earlier terrorists was hard, heartbreaking work; perhaps that’s why the TSA settles for screening passengers. An under-sheriff described the effort required to capture a single thief: “[T]he Wells-Fargo detectives and some of the railroad and Reno officials, together with a posse of citizens from Reno, had been out all day on a ‘sure clue’ which afterwards proved to be a false one. . . . It was now 10 o’clock at night and the snow was falling fast. [I] was out of [my] jurisdiction and unacquainted with that section of the country. . . .”

He and a guide eventually surprised his sleeping quarry at midnight: “When [I] finally aroused him to place him under arrest, he bounded from his bed and landed in the center of the room like a wild animal. Rushing back to the bed, he reached for his gun. . . .” Not surprisingly, agents sometimes died on the job. It’s far safer and easier to search law-abiding passengers than to track criminals, but it’s also useless: during the TSA’s four-and-a-half years of existence, not one of its employees has caught a terrorist. In lieu of bad guys, then, the TSA protects us from each other, from flyers who break the agency’s whimsical and ever-changing rules, from men named David Nelson (this name has unexplicably earned passengers close scrutiny) and Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam), and from women wielding lipsticks. The list of mistakes and misdeeds that turn travelers into terrorists will continue to expand as the TSA tries to justify its existence and its $5 billion yearly budget—and as the government reaps revenue from the fines “terrorists” pay.

The railroads also confronted a real enemy. They neither lied nor exaggerated the risks because that would cost them customers. Contrast that with the bureaucrats at the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. They depend on taxpayers’ fears of ubiquitous, magically lethal terrorists for their jobs and cushy offices. (The TSA’s headquarters boasts $500,000 worth of silk plants and artwork, a 4,200-square-foot fitness center, and seven kitchens.) So does their army of 45,000 airport screeners. Indeed, the government’s incentives are not only perverse but directly opposite the railroads’: the bigger the threat, the more government passengers “need” and the more eagerly they cede their freedom. The TSA has every reason to overstate the number of terrorists. And does: the notorious “No-Fly List” topped out at 325,000 names. Can there really be that many folks living in caves while dreaming of sky-high suicide? Even the TSA tacitly admitted that this was nonsense last November when it claimed to be pruning the roster by half. Still . . . 162,500 explosive cavemen?

The TSA can espouse such balderdash because neither passengers nor markets influence it. That frees it from common sense and rational decisions. It responds solely to the politicians who created and sustain it. And as long as they profit from voters’ fears, the TSA will pretend passengers are pathological. It charges them for the privilege, too, unlike the railroads. The latter footed their own security rather than expecting taxpayers to do so. That kept the hired hands accountable to the railroads, who were in turn sensitive to customers’ demands for cheap, fast, safe, and convenient travel. No railroad executive in his right mind would have paid agents to sit inside the terminals, groping passengers and rifling their bags, while Jesse James rioted unmolested through the countryside.

Perhaps this was because both the railroads and the investigators started from a premise opposite that of the TSA. They considered passengers victims of the robbers, not accomplices who must be searched and surveilled. They neither disarmed them nor sought federal legislation to do it for them: One conductor begged passengers to lend him a revolver while a robbery was underway. He had apparently mislaid his—railroad employees often carried weapons, unlike the captain and crew on planes.

An Ounce of Prevention

Finally, the railroads prevented trouble before it started by denying tickets to trouble-makers. If a man aroused suspicion in the depot, railroad employees booted him off the premises. (The desire for profits protected customers from unreasonable suspicion: operators barred only those passengers who seemed truly threatening.) Federal law forbids such common sense to airlines.

Private security isn’t a panacea. But weaning the airlines from taxpayer-funded, politically driven “security”—and from the federal straitjacket accompanying it—would result in the same no-nonsense approach the railroads took. Jets worth billions guarantee the airlines’ scrupulous attention to providing their own foolproof protection. And repeat business comes only from living customers who reach their destinations in one piece.

Leaving security to the TSA, on the other hand, means that passengers and taxpayers will continue to be railroaded.